There are many important lessons to be learned from the numerous empires throughout history. The idea of an empire existing in today's geopolitical climate seems almost implausible, they are certainly relics of the past, right? While the United States has a long history of insisting on isolationist policies, there have been a number of expansionist, imperial-minded Presidents who have fed the theory of American exceptionalism and led the nation down a path of excessive intervention in countries around the world. The Roman Republic is often looked at as one of the most successful republics in all of history. The Roman people living through its historic rise could have never imagined their sacred government ever exiting center stage. However, due to corrupt politicians, civil upheaval, and economic unrest, the republic did come to a violent end. Taking a critical look at the fall of the Roman Republic, as well as the United States’ imperialist history, could teach some practical lessons to modern Americans.
n 509 B.C. the ancient Romans all agreed that it was time to abolish their absolute monarchy, in turn replacing it with a republic that would last for hundreds of years. The Roman Senate, a political advisory board, had existed during the rule of the monarchs and survived through in the transition to the Republic. Originally, only the patricians could serve in these lifetime positions, but after the lower class plebeians began to take issues with this, the role of tribunes was established. This allowed the Roman Republic to represent many of its inhabitants; with the plebeians now in a position of power, they could begin fighting for what they believed to be just reforms and legislation.
A political alliance that would come to be known as the First Triumvirate was established between three of Rome’s most ambitious men in 60 B.C. The three men were Pompey, one of the most respected and successful generals of his time, Crassus, rumored to be the most wealthy man in Rome, and Julius Caesar, the man who would ultimately lead the republic to its deathbed. The three men agreed to form this alliance so they could use their respective influence to aid one another politically. The most consequential of these favors came when Caesar was granted the provincial governorship in Gaul, now modern day France, for five years. Here, Caesar would go on to conquer the entire region with his legions, committing what some historians have referred to as genocide of the Gallic people. At this point, the relationship between the triumvirs had deteriorated and Caesar was growing fond of his loyal legions and the power they gave him.
At home in Rome, Pompey was growing weary of Caesar's power, and began to share his fears with the Senate, who agreed he was out of control waging unprovoked war in Gaul. Caesar knew he was growing unpopular at home, and became aware of the criminal charges being brought against him upon his return. “So long as Caesar held a military command, he was legally immune from prosecution. The efforts of the senators, therefore, were directed above all at recalling Caesar to Rome.” It was Roman law that if a man held a military command they were legally immune from being prosecuted, and Caesar knew this. Allowing Caesar to amass so much military power unchecked was Rome’s biggest mistake, as his legions became so loyal to their general and not the nation they were actually serving. It was at this moment that he made a bold decision: he set his sights on Rome and decided it was better to march against his city than to relinquish his power and be charged by the Senate, thus signalling the beginning of the end for the Roman Republic.
The Republic’s fall was years in the making, with a multitude of factors leading to its ultimate demise. Caesar was not the first to march against his city and claim the title of dictator for himself. The Roman Constitution allowed for the role of dictator to be taken under dire circumstances. The story of Cincinattus comes to mind, a former general who had retired to his farm was asked to assume the role of dictator to fend off outside threats, who then returned to his farm giving up his role as dictator once the threat was neutralized. A man like Caesar however, was too ambitious to let go of any of the power he had gained. The imperialist notion of the Roman Republic was what led Caesar to Gaul, where he amassed so much power that led to his ability to overthrow the government at home. The Senate had little power to stop him, even during the ensuing civil wars and tumultuous period after his arrival back in Rome. He returned fashioning himself the savior of Rome: he had put down the threat in Gaul and defeated the rebellious Pompey, after Caesar branded him a traitor to the Republic. These events ultimately led to Ceaser’s assassination at the hands of the Senate, who knew he had completely overlooked the checks and balances in place to not allow another monarch. Unfortunately, this only led Rome further away from democracy, as Caesar's adopted son Octavian, took his father’s role as ruler and established what would become the Roman Empire. Subsequent Roman emperors would style themselves as “first citizens,” a title to shroud their monarchical powers in a style of democracy. This did not change the fact that the Senate would continually lose representative power, and the common people of Rome would be ruled by an emperor for generations to come.
While the United States may have never adopted the title of an empire, there are many characteristics that have developed that may make the nation deserving of one. In 1823, President Monroe issued the Monroe Doctrine, which was a document that told the European powers to remain out of the United States’ sphere of influence. President Monroe wished for the powers of Europe to quit meddling in affairs within the western hemisphere, and his goal was that the United States could exert its own influence in its neighboring countries. He stated, “It is only when our rights are invaded or seriously menaced that we resent injuries or make preparation for our defense,” a far cry from what later President’s would assert as their personal responsibility to spread our ideals across the globe. It would be a later President, Theodore Roosevelt, who would launch the United States into a heightened period of imperialistic policies.
In a private letter to a friend, Roosevelt wrote “In strict confidence...I should welcome almost any war for I think this country needs one.” This succinctly summarizes how Roosevelt would view American expansion before and during his presidency. He did not view war as something that should be avoided at all costs, but instead as a tool that could be used advantageously. Speaking to the Naval War College in 1893, Roosevelt said that “No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumph of war.” Roosevelt would get his wish in 1898, as his almost prophetic letter had foretold. The United States had taken keen interest in the Cuban War of Independence, as the native Cubans were trying to shake off their Spanish rulers. Under unknown circumstances, the USS Maine exploded in Havana harbor leading the U.S. into the Spanish-American War, where America would end up controlling 80 percent of Cuba’s mineral exports by 1901. American politicians may have been able to feign support for Cuban independence at the time, but it is clear that their goal was much more selfish. Occupying the country and farming the island nation of all it could, the United States never went as far as annexing Cuba, but they did coerce the Cuban government to ratify the Platt Amendment. This gave the United States government special powers and “the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty…”
While this short history of the Spanish-American war may not include the extremely nuanced political debate that surrounded the time period, it does expose a trend in American history: over-extending national influence and aggressive military practices. The Congressional Research Service, Congress’s think tank since 1914, has released a multitude of documents that highlight these interferences around the globe. “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2020” documents each time the U.S. used its military from the “Undeclared Naval War with France” in 1800, to 2020 where a reader can see all different divisions of the armed forces being transferred throughout the world. It doesn’t take a trained eye to see that within the 52 page document, each year the descriptions get longer and more detailed. This is evident as the United States has become more involved in global affairs in our nation’s recent history.
Another document that the Congressional Research Service released titled “U.S. Role in the World: Background and Issues for Congress” details the current state of the United States in international affairs over 54 pages. The document attempts to define what role the U.S. currently holds in the world, as well as hypothesizing what global changes would come of the U.S. taking a smaller lead on the geopolitical stage. There are some important sections in the document that warn Congress of potential risks the nation is taking, such as overextending influence which “could lead to excessive amounts of federal debt and inadequately addressed domestic problems.” This is eerily reminiscent of the Roman Republic on the eve of its collapse, Caesar leaving to conquer neighboring nations while the Senate was left to clean up his mess and address the legal issues the ambitious general had brought to their attention. Later in the CRS document, the authors are quick to address reasons why the United States should restrict and lessen their global role, stating: “the United States has not always lived up to its own ideals, and consequently lacks sufficient moral standing to pursue a role that involves imposing its values and will on other countries.” However, the report does state that while the U.S. may not be perfect, and its role in global affairs may shrink based on necessity, the CRS does criticize China and Russia as being too authoritarian to become the next global superpower. Whatever route the United States decides to take in the coming years must be based on a variety of factors, whether they be economic, domestic, or international. The importance of these decisions cannot be downplayed; do we want later generations to look back on this time and view the nation as selfish expansionists whose only goal was to exploit smaller nations for material gain, or as a beacon for equality and democracy throughout the world?
Addis, Ferdinand. The Eternal City: a History of Rome. New York: Pegasus Books, 2018.
Congressional Research Service. U.S. Role in the World: Background and Issues for Congress. Accessed September 26, 2020. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R44891.pdf.
Congressional Research Service. Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2020. Accessed September 26, 2020. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R42738.pdf.
Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Roman Republic, 509 BC - 27 BC. Accessed September 26, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/place/Roman-Republic
Holland, Tom. Rubicon: the Last Years of the Roman Republic. New York: Random House, 2005.
Virtual Library of Inter-American Peace Initiatives. The Monroe Doctrine, 1823. Accessed September 26, 2020. https://www.oas.org/sap/peacefund/VirtualLibrary/MonroeDoctrine/Treaty/MonroeDoctrine.pdf.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States, 1492-2001. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003.